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When Time is of the Essence


It’s hard to miss Harvard Right to Life’s updated ‘Natalie’ posters, which are now printed in color and depict a growing fetus, already in its eleventh week. This week, we’re told, the fetus has acquired finger and toe-prints. The message behind the posters is clear—fetuses develop during gestation, becoming increasingly “human-like” until the ninth month when they, well, look just exactly like a newborn baby.

It doesn’t take an in-depth education in biology to know the basics of human ontogeny. We learned this stuff in elementary school. And yet the presentation of photos seems to imply that those who support a woman’s right to an abortion are fundamentally unclear on the concept of pregnancy, and operate under the ridiculous assumption that a fetus is nothing at all like a human, or that babies materialize, fully formed, nine months after conception. Perhaps if a woman can be made to realize that the baby inside of her has proto-organs and fingerprints, then she will drastically reconsider her position on abortion.

I’m sorry to say, we pro-choice advocates are not that stupid. We are aware of biology and we are aware of the deep complexity of terminating a potential life. And yet we believe, to one extent or another, that under some circumstances, including certain physical, emotional or economic hardships, women have the right to decide that they are not prepared to bring a baby into the world.

A pro-choice approach to abortion, however, does not preclude making essential distinctions between abortions at different stages of pregnancy. Indeed under the Roe v. Wade ruling, which legalized abortion in 1973, abortion becomes increasingly restricted as pregnancy progresses; late term abortions are legal only if the life of the mother is in danger. Over the course of the Natalie campaign, I have, frankly, only become more convinced that this distinction between stages of pregnancy is a real one and that, precisely for this reason, women for whom abortion is the right choice must have the support and resources to make this decision as early in pregnancy as possible. Not only are abortion procedures much less dangerous at early stages of pregnancy, but as the progression of posters has shown us, they can be far less emotionally complicated.

In accordance with this distinction, it is only logical that if a woman is aware that she is at risk of becoming pregnant, because a condom broke or she was the victim of rape, she should be able to receive emergency contraceptive pills the very next morning. If, a couple weeks later, she learns that she is pregnant, she should have immediate access to counselors who can advise her of her options. If she determines that abortion is the right choice she should be able to make an appointment at an abortion clinic nearby and have the procedure covered by health insurance. When it comes to abortion, time is a very real consideration.

Unfortunately, delays and restrictions are becoming more common as a result of increasingly restrictive legislation. Bush’s new appointee to the FDA Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee, David Hager, is in favor of making the morning-after pill, RU-486, illegal. Bush supports a policy that would prohibit military women serving abroad from obtaining safe medical abortions at local military hospitals overseas. Eighteen states have passed laws that force women to delay their abortions for a specified period of time, generally at least 24 hours. In some states, the laws require women to make two trips to the clinic: first for the sole purpose of receiving anti-choice information and then a return trip for their abortion. Eighty-six percent of counties in the United States have no doctors trained, qualified and willing to perform abortions. For women who are certain that an abortion is the right choice (and regardless of legislation women have felt and will at times continue to feel this certainty), these delays and restrictions mean that by the time she is able to access an abortion, the fetus will have continued to develop and will be aborted at a later stage and at a higher cost.

Anti-choice activists might counter that the distinction I have drawn is irrelevant. They might claim a fetus is equally a human life at the moment of conception as it is eight months into a pregnancy. Philosophical questions about the origin of human life, however, are multifaceted and have been answered in different ways, at different points in history by different traditions. They are exactly the conversations that we must have with our own traditions to determine our own nuanced positions on abortion and cannot be answered with the automatic response that Harvard Right to Life might claim is only logical.

In fact, the Natalie posters, visually and contextually, make an opposite statement. They demonstrate that there is something qualitatively and experientially different about a one hour-old and an eleven week-old fetus. They indicate, rightly, that the termination of a pregnancy is more problematic in its later stages than in its early ones. And they only increase my resolve to make sure that those for whom abortion is the right choice can make this decision as early and as easily as possible. I only hope that, noting the manifold ways that the Bush administration has tried to curtail this right, others might be persuaded to do the same.

Liora R. Halperin ’05 is a history and religion concentrator in Kirkland House and a member of Students for Choice.

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